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Selling contractors' brain power

world Updated: Jul 26, 2010 00:12 IST

The national security industry sells the military and intelligence agencies more than just airplanes, ships and tanks. It sells contractors' brain power. They advise, brief and work everywhere, including 25 feet under the Pentagon in a bunker where they can be found alongside military personnel monitoring potential crises worldwide.

Late at night, when the wide corridors of the Pentagon are all but empty, the National Military Command Center hums with purpose. There's real-time access to the location of US forces anywhere in the world, to granular satellite images or to the White House Situation Room.

The purpose of all this is to be able to answer any question the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff might have. To be ready 24 hours a day, every day, takes five brigadier generals, a staff of colonels and senior noncommissioned officers — and a man wearing a pink contractor badge and a bright purple shirt and tie.

"Knowledge engineer" Erik Saar is the only person in the room who knows how to bring data from far afield, fast. Saar and four teammates from a private company, SRA International, teach these top-ranked staff officers to think in Web 2.0. They are trying to push a tradition-bound culture to act digitally.

That sometimes means exchanging ideas on shared Web pages outside the military computer networks — things much resisted within the Pentagon culture. "Our job is to change the perception of leaders who might drive change," Saar said.

Contractor misdeeds in Iraq and Afghanistan have hurt US credibility in those countries. Abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, some of it done by contractors, helped ignite a call for vengeance against the US that continues today.

Security guards working for Blackwater added fuel to the five-year violent chaos in Iraq and became the symbol of an America run amok.

Contractors in war zones, especially those who can fire weapons, blur "the line between the legitimate and illegitimate use of force, which is just what our enemies want," said Allison Stanger, a professor and author of One Nation Under Contract, to the independent Commission on Wartime Contracting in June.

Misconduct happens, too. A defense contractor formerly called MZM paid bribes for CIA contracts. A California congressman went to prison.

But contractors have also advanced the way the military fights. During the bloodiest months in Iraq, Berico Technologies, working with the NSA, invented a technology that made finding roadside-bomb makers easier and helped stanch the number of casualties from improvised explosives.

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